Using EXIF Data to Improve Your Next Shot :: Digital Photo Secrets

Using EXIF Data to Improve Your Next Shot

by David Peterson 0 comments

Now it's time to get technical. Want to impress your friends and family? Or possibly make their eyes glaze over? Master the art and science of EXIF.

Of course EXIF is about more than just impressing/boring your friends and family. EXIF can make you a better photographer. In fact, it's one of the most important tools beginning photographers can use to help develop and refine their work.

What is EXIF?

The earliest incarnation of EXIF was the old date/time function that film cameras once had. You know, that setting you forgot you chose until you discovered that that roll of film you just had processed for $8.50 came complete with a big ugly orange date/time stamp in every corner of every image. Great.

Digital cameras do the same thing and more, but they are much more subtle about it. Now, instead of stamping the date/time in neon orange right onto your photograph, your camera records the date and time into the file image itself (sort of - EXIF is actually a file format, but let's not complicate things excessively). But wait, there's more. Along with that date and time information, your camera also records other important facts like camera model, aperture, shutter speed, focal length, ISO and, depending on your camera's abilities, data such as GPS coordinates. As camera technology continues to improve, more information will be added to that EXIF file.

Where do I find the EXIF data?

That depends. If the photo is still on a memory card in your camera, you should be able to view the EXIF data simply by pressing the "I" for "information" button, or some variation thereof. If the image is on your hard drive, you'll need to check it manually for each file or use software to view the EXIF data. If you're a Mac user, right click on the image file and select "get info" to bring up the EXIF information. In Windows, you can view an individual photo's EXIF details by right clicking it, then choosing Properties, then Details. If you use Photoshop, choose File -> File Info and then select the "Camera Data" tab to view the EXIF information.

Manual methods, of course, can get a bit annoying if you have multiple files you want to examine. Alternately, you can try one of the free tools available for this purpose, such as EXIF Reader for Windows or PhotoToolCM for the Mac. If you're looking at a file on an online photo sharing site such as Flickr, you'll often be able to view a file's EXIF data on the same page as the photo itself.

Two Columns by Flickr user Sergio Tudela Romero

OK, so how is this useful?

Flickr is, in general, a great resource for beginning photographers because it allows you to look at literally millions of different photographs and photography styles. One of the best ways we learn is by example, and what could be better than millions of different examples, both good and bad? But there's a bonus - each one of those images includes EXIF data (when available). Which means if you're wondering how the heck the photographer got such a cool shot, all that data is right there for your perusal. Examining this data for every shot that impresses you (and even some that don't) is going to give you a ton of insight into how different camera settings can affect the characteristics of a photograph.

EXIF's usefulness doesn't stop there, though. You're going to find yourself referring to this data in your own photographs as well, especially on those occasions where something went incredibly right, or incredibly wrong, and you want to get a good handle on what exactly was going on behind the scenes when that particular shot was taken.

Blurry But Not by Flickr user catd_mitchell

Here's an example: you go to your daughter's soccer game, and you take a ton of pictures. You're pretty sure some of them are going to be awesome, but when you get home you discover that most of your pictures are blurry, some of them are OK but none of them are really great. What went wrong? You check your EXIF data and discover that you shot most of the images at 1/60 or 1/100, which is apparently not fast enough to freeze the action during a soccer game. So the next time, you put your camera in shutter priority and you shoot everything at 1/500 or 1/1000. You sacrifice some depth of field, but you get pretty tack-sharp images.

Reverse Engineer your Images

This image was shot in sports mode, but looking at the EXIF data tells us exactly what settings the camera used to make the exposure.
Essai mode rafale du 50d! by Flickr user erwan bazin

If you're mostly shooting in auto modes or scene modes, EXIF is a great way to learn about what is happening behind the scenes whenever you take a picture. You may not have control over things like aperture and shutter speed in any of the various scene modes, but your camera is still recording that information. Next time you get a great shot in one of the auto modes, pay close attention to the EXIF data. If you learn what settings you need to use to recreate that great shot in manual mode, you'll be able to do it yourself without having to rely on the not-always-perfect results of your camera's auto modes.

In addition to helping you understand what went right in those auto modes, EXIF can also help you understand what went wrong. Let's say you got a blurry shot of that cityscape and when you examined your EXIF data you learned that your camera used a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second. Now you know that in similar situations you probably want to use a tripod, or possibly switch to a manual or semi-manual mode so you can turn up the ISO or sacrifice a little depth of field in exchange for a faster shutter speed.

Growing beyond EXIF

EXIF is probably always going to be useful to you in one way or another, but eventually you'll develop an instinct for figuring out these things without referring to EXIF data. In the meantime, though, the EXIF data doesn't lie. You will always know exactly why your photos were blurry, underexposed or otherwise not right, because your EXIF data will tell you why.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.